[Viewpoint] Safety concerns tied to aging societiesIn Korea, the proportion of the total population age 65 and over is 10.7 percent.
At this pace, Korean society is expected to become a so-called aged society - where the number of people 65 and over accounts for more than 14 percent of the total population - by 2018. It will also take only 16 years for Korea to become a “super-aged” society where senior citizens account for 20 percent of the population.
A variety of debates on the topic have focused on analyzing these changes. However, participants in these discussion spend too much time talking about their fears and concentrating on economic or welfare issues.
When asked for their opinions on the impact that an aging society will have on the nation’s security, most people provide a simple answer: “The size of Korea’s armed forces will get smaller due to a significant decrease in the number of young males, and a mushrooming welfare budget will deal a severe blow to the military budget.”
However, in-depth studies and reports by foreign entities show that these demographic changes pose other serious threats that we often don’t focus on.
A recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine titled “The New Population Bomb,” shows that Korea - once classified as a third world country - belongs to a new first world group of aging industrialized nations, joining the ranks of the United States, Canada, Europe, Japan, Taiwan and Singapore as well as China after 2030.
A new second world group comprises fast-growing and economically dynamic countries with a healthy mix of young and old inhabitants, such as Brazil, Iran, Mexico, Thailand, Turkey and Vietnam as well as China until 2030.
The new third world group represents fast-growing, very young and increasingly urbanized countries with poorer economies and often weak governments.
Afghanistan is a prime example. The current population of Afghanistan is projected to rise from 28 million today to 45 million by 2025 and 75 million by 2050.
Ironically, many consider these new third world nations as terrorist-sponsored countries and classify them according to their religions.
The road map to peace in the global community may differ depending on the best way to keep young third world countries - the Islamic countries of the Middle East, in particular - in check. In addition, the most notable change is that the four major powers surrounding the Korean Peninsula will be classified as old first world countries in the following two decades.
Amid this changing dynamic, a new question arises: What influence will Japan - the fastest-aging society among our neighbors - have on our security?
First and foremost, Japan has already been decreasing its military spending, which has amounted to 1 percent of its gross domestic product since 1976, due to the rising cost of social welfare and a reduction in the working population.
If Japan’s Self-Defense Forces has difficulty recruiting personnel because of a shortage of youth and finds it difficult to keep China in check, many experts insist that Japan will resort to nuclear weapons that maintain a strong deterrent force or rely on state-of-the-art weapons, rather than soldiers.
The U.S. nuclear umbrella has kept Japan safe over the past six decades.
As long as the majority of the Japanese public remain against the country possessing nuclear weapons - and as long as those who lived through the nuclear attacks in Nagasaki and Hiroshima continue to live - it will be difficult to politicize Japan’s possession of nuclear weapons.
However, everything will change over the next few decades.
Japan’s aging population will have a negative impact on the country’s economy, leading to immense challenges tied to expenses incurred in supporting U.S. forces stationed in Japan. If the U.S. has difficulty supporting its own military forces deployed overseas due largely to an aging American population, there will be a breakup of the U.S.-Japan alliance.
At the same time, Japanese rightist military forces will justify the possession and use of nuclear weapons in defense.
If the U.S. acknowledges that the Japanese should have nuclear weapons, then an overhaul of the structure and goal of the alliance between the two countries will change.
However, it will not be easy for the U.S. to find a new partner in this region. Singapore is too small. And South Korea, locked in a hostile military confrontation with the North, also faces an aging crisis just like Japan.
There is a high possibility, therefore, that the U.S. will allow the sale of state-of-the-art weapons to Japan over the long term. Imagine a nuclear-armed Japan or a Japan fully equipped with a state-of-the-art defense force. Neither is favorable to us.
The worst-case scenario would be that South Korea is surrounded by nuclear powers in Northeast Asia, including North Korea, Japan, China and Russia.
Experts expect that the ratio of Korean men 18 years old and over will decrease by more than 26 percent from the present level, which will obviously affect supply and demand for military personnel in a decade.
The demographic challenges cannot be resolved right away or even within several years, unlike other issues.
In this vein, the Korean government should devise a policy that reflects the variable of the aging population - in addition to the North Korean threat, checks between Japan, China and Russia and a stronger Korea-U.S. alliance - from a more macro perspective.
Furthermore, advanced countries should spare no effort to prevent the worst-case scenario from happening by establishing a security summit to address policy issues in an aging society.
*The writer is a chair-professor at Sejong University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kim Joung-won